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British Pop Art Pioneers

  • 6 min read

This autumn Christie’s auction house will be showcasing the Pioneers of British Pop Art in the first UK exhibition devoted to these international innovators since a touring show from Germany visited York in 1976. We’re taking the opportunity to introduce some of the fantastic early British pop artists, whose achievements have often been overlooked. 

Christie’s head of postwar and contemporary art Frances Outred has said that early British pop art is crying out for serious appraisal, “What’s really interesting here is that it’s not like the British were second – they were the first. Britain invented the term Pop Art and it is now a global phenomenon which is known principally as an American phenomenon.”

The Christie's exhibition, titled ‘Britain Went Pop!’, will show how British artists went on to influence the big American pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, “As the Americans became more and more popular and strong it seems the Brits became a bit more shy and went more esoteric”, Outred explained. 

Christie’s have been working with living artists such as Peter Blake and Allen Jones and the families of other artists to showcase over 70 works, many of which have not been since the 1960s, if at all. One of the earliest works will be a 1948 proto-pop art collage by Eduardo Paolozzi. Whilst the British pop artists were mostly men, the exhibition will also feature the work of two women artists, Jann Haworth and Pauline Boty, who were both innovators of the international movement. 

Here’s an introduction to some of the renowned and lesser known British artists who led the way in the cutting-edge exploration of the paradoxical imagery of popular culture. Meet the forgotten women, the father, the godfather and the king of Pop Art…

Richard Hamilton

Richard Hamilton is regarded by many as the father of Pop Art. His best known work was his 1956 collage ‘Just What is it That Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing?’, considered by some historians to mark the birth of the pop art movement.

Hamilton is credited with coining the phrase ‘pop art’ itself. In words dating from 1957, that are seen as prescient of the likes of Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst, he wrote, “Pop art is popular (designed for a mass audience), transient (short term solution), expandable (easily forgotten), low cost, mass produced, young (aimed at youth), witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big business.”

Hamilton hung out with the musicians of the Sixties; his silkscreen ‘Swingeing London’ shows Mick Jagger in the back of a police car and Paul McCartney asked him to design The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ sleeve. René Magritte and Marcel Duchamp were among his close friends and David Hockney and Peter Blake were among those he taught and influenced. 

 

Peter Blake

During the late 1950s, Peter Blake became one of the best known pioneers of British pop art. Studying at the Royal College of Art (1953-7), he was placed in the centre of Swinging London and came into contact with the leading figures of popular culture.

He came to wider public attention when, along with Pauline Boty, Derek Boshier and Peter Philips, he featured in Ken Russell’s ‘Monitor’ film on pop art, ‘Pop Goes the Easel’ (broadcast on the BBC in 1962). Blake’s art captured the effervescent and optimistic ethos of the sixties and reflected his fascination with icons and the ephemera of popular culture.

The ‘Godfather of Pop Art’ is best known for co-creating the sleeve design for the Beatle’s ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ with fellow pop art pioneer Jan Howarth. Still creating exceptional artwork today, he continues to explore the beauty to be found in everyday objects. 

Gerald Laing 

Gerald Laing loomed large in the British pop art movement, helping to define the 1960s with huge canvases based on newspaper photographs of famous models, astronauts and film stars. His portrait of Brigitte Bardot is one of his most famous works. 

Laing’s earliest pop art pieces presented young starlets or bikini-clad beauties bursting with sex appeal, capturing the excitement and exuberance of the 1960s. His work frequently commented on current events, such as the painting ‘Souvenir’ (1962), a response to the Cuban missile crisis which used a 3D effect allowing the viewer to see Khruschev from one side and Kennedy from the other. 

At the end of his third year at St Martin’s (1963) he spent the summer in New York, having been given introductions to Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Robert Indiana, all of whom were still on the brink of fame. Indiana employed him as a studio assistant and Andy Warhol became a friend and lifelong influence. 

 

Allen Jones

Allen Jones is one of the most renowned British pop sculptors. While living in New York (1964-5) he discovered a rich fund of imagery in the sexually motivated popular illustrations of the 1940s and 1950s. Henceforth, in paintings such as ‘Perfect Match’, he made explicit previously subdued eroticism. The full extent of his Pop sensibility emerged in sexually provocative fibreglass sculptures such as ‘Chair’ (1969), life-size images of women as furniture with fetishist and sado-masochist overtones. 

In the late 1950s Jones studied at the Royal College of Art with David Hockney and R.B.Kitaj. He credits Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and the writer Lawrence Alloway for introducing him to new ways of thinking about representation. Living on the Kings Road in the 60s and 70s he witnessed the liberation of the body and socio-political situation that followed the austerity of the post war years. These things fed into his artwork and with the passage of time his sculptures now encapsulate the spirit of swinging London.  

 

Pauline Boty

Pauline Boty was a founder of British pop art and the only female painter in the British wing of the movement. She has been described by the Independent as “the heartbreaker of the Sixties art scene.” In 1959, she entered the Royal College of Art (a year ahead of Boshier, David Hockney and Allen Jones).

Boty, who died in 1966 aged just 28, was a key player in the frenetic Swinging London social scene; she was reportedly loved by countless men including Peter Blake, she escorted Bob Dylan around London on his first visit to Britain, and was a dancer on ‘Ready Steady Go!’. Her work was, in the pop art manner, uncompromising, sensational, gaudy, and frequently explicitly sexual. Her rebellious art, combined with her free-spirited lifestyle, made her a herald of 1970s feminism.

Jann Haworth

Although Jann Haworth is an American born artist she spent many years living in England, moving to London in 1961 to study art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art and studio art at the Slade. She experimented with sewn and stuffed soft sculptures which often contained specific references to American culture, for examples her dummies of Mae West and Shirley Temple. Her use of soft materials was unprecedented at the time and she soon became an innovative leading figure of the British pop art movement.

Haworth married Peter Blake, with whom she created the iconic album cover design of The Beatles’ ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. The original concept was to have The Beatles dressed in their new "Northern brass band" uniforms appearing at an official ceremony in a park. For the great crowd gathered at this imaginary event, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, as well as Haworth and Blake all submitted a list of characters they wanted to see in attendance. Blake and Haworth then pasted life-size, black-and-white photographs of all the approved characters onto hardboard, which Haworth subsequently hand-tinted. Haworth also added several cloth dummies to the assembly, including one of her "Old Lady" figures and a Shirley Temple doll who wears a 'Welcome The Rolling Stones' sweater. Inspired by the municipal flower-clock in Hammersmith, West London, Haworth came up with the idea of writing out the name of the band in civic flower-bed lettering.

Joe Tilson

The Telegraph has declared Joe Tilson “the forgotten king of British pop art” He was one of the first in the group of young art stars to have a highly successful show in the Swinging Sixties (1961). “I was famous before the Beatles and Hockney,” Tilson says.

Following national service, he studied alongside Frank Auerback, Leon Kossoff and Peter Blake at the Royal College of Art. Part of the gilded circle, he made lasting friendships with Blake and David Hockney. He responded quickly to the emergence of pop art, adapting his earlier, highly formalised abstract language to the creation of objects reminiscent of children’s toys in their construction, bold colours and schematised imagery.

'Britain Went Pop!' will also be showcasing work by David Hockney, Patrick Caulfield, R.B. Kitaj, Colin Self, Clive Barker, Derek Boshier, Antony Donaldson, Jann Haworth, Nicholas Monro, Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter Phillips and Richard Smith.  

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